starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross
written by: Laura Lau
directed by: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
MPAA: Rated R for disturbing violent content and terror
Elizabeth Olsen gives another must-see performance in Silent House, a gimmicky yet admirably ambitious horror movie that transpires in real time and, most impressively, claims to have been filmed in one uninterrupted take with zero cuts. And while that has been debated a bit — the filmmakers have admitted to making a few barely perceptible cuts — that still makes it a full-length film done with just one camera and a couple long-ass takes. It’s an impressive and nerve-rattling achievement.
Adapted from Gustavo Hernandez’s Spanish-language film La casa muda by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water), Silent House stars Olsen as Sarah, a college-aged woman helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), renovate a labyrinthine old lake house they used to visit as a vacation home. The house has no electricity, and as the day gets darker, they are increasingly dependent on flashlights and lanterns. Sarah is visited briefly by a mysterious young woman named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who claims she used to play with Sarah when they were little, although Sarah has no recollection of her.
Sophia offers to come by later, although Sarah mentions that the house doesn’t have any phone lines and none of their cells work in this remote location (which at least spares us the inevitable moment where our heroine triumphantly locates her phone only to discover no signal). Uncle Peter heads out to run some errands, leaving Sarah and her father alone in the big house. And that’s when shit starts to get freaky. John goes missing after a series of strange noises, and Sarah discovers him bloodied and unconscious in one of the many rooms. It becomes clear that there is someone or something in the house, and Sarah is trapped inside with it.
There’s not much to Silent House. It is, quite literally, 88 minutes of Elizabeth Olsen losing her mind in real time. The entire movie depends on her performance for its success, and she comes through with flying colors. When I spoke to Olsen about her breakout role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, she mentioned Silent House and her long-time fascination with fear; this fascination bears impressive fruit here, with Olsen registering an incredibly fluent and diverse range of different fearful reactions. This is vital to the film’s success; if its lead had only one scared expression and one scream in her repertoire, it would get very dull very quickly. Sadly, the other actors are not nearly on her level; Trese is especially awkward as John, while soap actor Stevens (As the World Turns) fares somewhat better as Peter.
Silent House is not a perfect film. Shaky-cam detractors will find much to complain about here, particularly during one especially punishing running sequence; it also makes it damn near impossible to see what’s happening at several key moments. And while it did surprise me in its final act — I wrongly thought I had it figured out — they don’t quite pull it off, and I kinda like my version better. But ultimately it comes down to Olsen, and she sells the shit out of this performance. It is an especially remarkable accomplishment when you consider how precisely her every movement had to be choreographed so as not to blow the take; combining that level of technical expertise with the intensely emotional rawness of her performance is nothing less than virtuosic.
Silent House opens in San Francisco today.